The new critics

Emily Gould posted a woefully short item on Galleycat yesterday about the labyrinth that is the Amazon customer review system, pointing out something that I just learned this week: there is a woman named Harriet Klausner who has posted 16,191 reviews on Amazon to date. Apparently, she’s a retired librarian and, most importantly, a speed reader who reads four to six books a day and reviews every single one of them on Amazon. Now, that’s a talent. Publishers treat her like a professional reviewer–they send her books for free in the hopes that she’ll read them (unlike most book bloggers, she probably does get through most of what she’s sent because she’s such a freaky fast reader!). One of the best things (for publishers and authors, at least) about Harriet? She hardly ever gives a bad review. Seriously, do a scroll down her Amazon reviews page. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You see? Four or five stars, no less, and everything is excellent, poignant, or insightful, amongst other laudative adjectives.

People in the book industry decry the decline of the print book review daily, but I can’t help but wonder whether we even need professional book critics anymore?* Lookit, I read the New York Times Sunday book reviews, but I don’t really care about them. I read them out of professional interest only, in a sort of “Oh, let’s see what books the Times and every other ‘literary’ book outlet will be wanking about for the next ten months” way. Also because I find Michiko Kakutani mildly entertaining at times. But the truth is, I don’t buy books that I read about in the Times, even if they get a rave–maybe even especially. Because I don’t trust professional reviewers. I don’t feel like they’re at all interested in telling me anything about a book, whether or not it’s worth reading or buying; they don’t have me, the buyer, the reader, in mind when they’re writing their reviews. They have themselves in mind. And not themselves as readers–themselves as critics. Because this is their profession, and so every piece they write contributes to an overall collection of work that represents them, as writers. Their thoughts about a given book are actually quite a small concern in comparison.

To tell the truth, I don’t hold much truck with Amazon reviews, either, at least not when it comes to entertainment. I love them when I’m looking to buy a DVD player–they tell me what to avoid because of XY&Z problems, what is specifically wrong with an item and whether it lives up to its promises–but let’s be honest, when it comes to books and movies and music the opinions of some anonymous Amazon reviewer who I don’t know are just as useless to me as Michiko Kakutani’s opinions. Items of entertainment are so highly subjective, and anyway I feel like most Amazon reviewers review books because they either hate them or love them, like our friend Harriet Klausner–there’s no perspective in such extremity.

This is why everybody needs a good book blogger they can trust. Even if they’re anonymous, if you read enough of the book blogger’s reviews (which are often much better written, thought out, and more even-tempered than Amazon reviews) you can get a sense for what they like and don’t like, what they tend to read and what they tend to avoid, and as you keep reading the blog and perhaps trying out some of their more highly recommended suggestions you can start to see whether or not they align with your tastes. These aren’t professionals; sometimes they’re getting the books comped from the publishers, but often they’re buying them themselves, like you do. That’s what’s so great about book bloggers–they’re not critics, they’re readers. This is important, because readers read for vastly different reasons than critics read, and they often come to different conclusions about a book. A novel full of pretentious bullshit might appeal to a critic because then they can say all kinds of pretentious bullshit about it, but a reader can see through all that BS right quick and come to their own readerly conclusion, which is a far more trustworthy opinion.

This is not to say that I agree with all book bloggers, but I just think they’re part of the new revolution of reviewers. Maybe people don’t read the books section because we’re beyond critics. Now we just want to know what books are loved by people like us.

*Wow, reading over this post I think I was coming across as someone who thinks print book reviews should die. No! Not me. I think whenever people talk about books, it’s a good thing, whatever they’re saying (unless they’re trying to censor people or talk about burning books). And there are a lot of newspapers with great review sections and great reviewers. I personally dislike the New York Times in reference to almost everything and I get really frustrated that the “paper of record” is in so many ways so irrelevant to the lives of so many people. But that’s another post. I don’t want book reviews in newspapers and magazines to go away. I just think that book bloggers are the wave of the future, that’s all, and that I personally prefer them over print reviews. Although I really like the reviews in Publishers Weekly…I’ve gotten a lot of great book recommendations from them.

Welcome to the blogpacalypse

Well, it’s happened. Incredibly true and funny (and funny ’cause it’s true!) blogsite Stuff White People Like is being turned into a book. Like, of course it is. And I’m sure it’ll be a really funny book. But here’s the thing: blogs are blogs because they’re not books, or anything else, really. They’re blogs. Blogs based on books are just risky, because it’s not a given that the material contained within a blog will be either funny or interesting in book form. I think it’s great that publishers are taking bloggers seriously and trolling the ‘sphere to find promising new writing talent, for sure, but lots of web traffic does not necessarily equal lots of book sales. Why? Because you can read blogs for free! I think the best (and most successful, although I can’t back that up) blogs-to-books stories are where the blog is a jumping off point for the book–the inspiration, the foundation, maybe a few especially favorite entries are edited/rewritten into essays–but, in the end, the book is an entirely new entity. Or so I think. I’m really not an expert. But it just seems like publishers are just optioning blogs as books nowadays because it seems like the work is already done, or nearly done, but I can’t imagine that it’s any easier to wrangle a blog between a cover than it is an unwieldy but promising manuscript. If you know better, please school me (and I mean that).